**Disclaimer: I own a VCR, two thirty-year old cameras, an ornery Nissan and lots of denim. However, I
DO NOT own Outlaw Star- they keep turning down my generous offers. I'll get over it, someday**
The lone figure purposefully made her way through the crowds and side-streets of the Towards Stars Inn station; her rapid, deliberate pace underlying the uncertainty she was once again feeling. Low on funds and inexplicably separated from her spaceship, she knew she could always count on her guile and quick-thinking to get out of a jam. She had managed to pull herself out of deeper shit in times past, to be certain. However, it wasn't the actual situation that bothered her so much as the lack of understanding as to exactly how she wound up where she was. She had no idea what had happened to her, her friends and partners and her ship. To the best of her knowledge, as much as a precious month of her life was unaccounted for. The further that period of time slipped away, the more it ate at her.
*Amnesia* she scoffed to herself. It was the stuff of bad Old Earth telenovellas. Yet she was living with it- at least partly. It wasn't like she didn't know who she was and where she was from. She also knew that she was being hunted. All sorts of unsavory people had scores to settle with her, but so far she had remained one step ahead of them. If she was to hide, she was more content to hide in plain sight.
The dark-haired woman may not have known exactly what she was doing a year ago, but she knew enough that she was plenty thirsty. She headed into the Temple Bar. It was a fairly tidy and well-kept place, several steps above what she was used to. There was the bartender and two patrons discussing the days events as the television droned on at an unintrusive volume. She greeted the rotund, grizzled bartender with a quick nod.
"What'll it be?" he asked, polishing off a glass and hanging it overhead.
"Whiskey on the rocks." she said.
The bartender obliged, handing off her glass before heading back to give his take on the benefits of a revised trade treaty with the Silgrians to the two patrons. The woman occupied herself with the TV screen. It was time for the nightly news, and it was looking like a slow news day.....
**....and in sports, the deadline for registration in the Heiphong Space Race is winding down this week. Several contenders representing corporations are slated to return this year, including the Gorgeous Mitsiru, Achilles and Vostok. There have been a few new entries in the privateer division, but it remains to be seen wether or not last year's dark horse entry, The Outlaw Star, will register this year. The Outlaw Star surprised a lot of fans last year by finishing first overall in the privateer category..**
The woman looked up from her drink, and her eyes widened. Showing footage of the ship crossing the finish line at last year's races, she saw the red Outlaw vessel and recognized it immediately. Her hand clenched the drink.
"Son of a Bitch! The XGP.......How........?" she said to nobody in particular. Her fist tightened around the glass and she was brought out of her state by a loud popping noise. She looked down to see the glass shattered in her hands. The others in the bar turned to look as broken glass, whiskey and ice cubes clattered on the floor. Blood was starting to pour from an open cut in her palm.
"Are you OK?" one of them asked.
"I'm fine..." she said abruptly, reaching into her pocket with the bloodied hand and pulling out a 5 Wong coin. She tossed it onto the bar before setting down the jagged bloody glass, making no effort to examine her wound. "Just fine....." she mused quietly as she turned to leave.
"OK Aisha- can you help me put this panel back in place?" Jim asked.
The Ctarl-Ctarl nodded and effortlessly lifted up the heavy and bulky hydraulic panel, slowly sliding it along the wall and lining it up with the screws.
"Has Gene even registered yet?" she impatiently asked.
"Nope." Jim said as he began twisting the screws back into place "he and Mel are still trying to sweet talk Fred into some sort of sponsorship deal."
"What if that doesn't work out?"
"Dunno." Jim shrugged "But there's no harm in running a little maintenance on the ship even if we can't register for the race."
A pink Gillium-can quietly slid up on its rail next to the two of them. "I'm perfectly capable of running a diagnostic on my own systems. I would be more than ready to let you know if anything was amiss, although I'd need to be in Zero Gravity to carry out any heavy labor myself." he said, sounding as indignant as his programming would permit.
"I know, Gil, but....." Jimmy started to say as he tightened the last screw on the panel in place and stood up.
"....Jimmy prefers to do things the old-fashioned way. If ya want something done right, ya gotta do it yourself sometimes, y'know? " Aisha said to the ship's computer as she affectionately ruffled to boy's hair.
Jim couldn't help but smile as he gently guided her hand away from his head. A year ago, her actions would've drawn a very different reaction- annoyance at best, and possibly fear. To say that Aisha had grown on him in that past year was an understatement. Perhaps the most surprising thing about her as far as Jim was concerned was how often the Ctarl Ctarl was right.
"Should Fred fail to provide funds for registration, I'll be glad to contribute." a voice spoke up.
Aisha and Jim looked up through the hatch and saw Suzuka peering down at them.
"I didn't know you had that kind of money." Jim said.
"Under ordinary circumstances, I don't have such a large sum of money on my person, but lately I've had a run of good fortune at one of the casinos." she explained. Spending ten thousand Wong on the Outlaw Star was no more a risky gamble than any roulette wheel.
For the past few nights, Aisha, Suzka and Jim were sleeping in their quarters on board the Outlaw Star while it was still docked. While Aisha was helping Jim around the ship, she lost herself in her meditation and training. Much of the time, it felt almost like a sleep over. But as much fun as the three of them professed to be having fun, the real reason the assassin, warrior and boy-genius decided to spend their nights on board the ship was Gene and Melfina's repeated and very loud lovemaking. To Jim and Aisha, it was merely an annoyance, but it genuinely ate away at Suzuka. For as long as she could remember, she prided herself on being a solitary individual, relying on no one other than herself. But each time she saw Gene and Melfina together, she simply felt alone.
The streets of the Towards Stars Inn were a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. But it was the smells that stood out in Takana Jaci-Jaci's mind. In addition to meat sizzling on vendor's grills and fresh produce being sold in the market, each Terran had their own unique individual scent. Each time she inhaled, she felt so alive. It was almost overwhelming at times. Her accelerated Ctarl Ctarl metabolism dictated that she have something to eat before continuing her search, so she purchased from one of the merchants some sliced mutton and grilled onion wrapped in a large slice of fluffy Injera bread and made quick work of that.
Takana was a descendant of an ancient Tribe of the Ctarl Ctarl Empire whose prowess at tracking and hunting was legendary, earning the moniker Tracker-Killers. Like so many other Ctarl Ctarl women, Takana Jaci-Jaci was quite beautiful- just under six feet tall, slender, shoulder-length brown hair, and with piercing jade eyes. Perhaps what set her apart from others was her chosen trade. As interstellar trade with other species opened up in the isolated corner of the Empire where she was exiled to, Takana realized how valuable her skills were to other species. Instead of waiting tables or stripping in other parts of the galaxy, as other Ctarl Ctarl women frequently found themselves, she was able to make a small fortune off of the natural hunting abilities the Creators saw fit to endow herself and her ancestors with. This would be her most lucrative job yet.
In the bustling market square, there were thousands of Terrans. However, she was searching for only one- the dark haired woman. For one tantalizing moment, she had caught a glimpse of the woman from across the market. The Terran woman was making no effort to conceal herself- she was either very bold or very foolish. But almost as quickly as she had spotted her, the elusive woman had vanished, leaving Takana amid thousands of unfamiliar faces. She surreptitiously unscrewed a small gold claw-shaped capsule from her necklace and extracted a pinch of iaru root between her two fingers before placing it under her tongue. Takana let out a sharp, barely audible gasp as her body shuddered, a typical side effect of the root. Everybody seemed to be moving in slow-motion as her ears throbbed and she continued through the crowd. This was what she lived for. It was time to resume the hunt.
Perhaps it was a curse, perhaps it was a gift, but Aisha Clanclan was a light sleeper. Through closed doors, her keen ears could hear somebody talking quietly. She was still a little bit groggy, but she realized she was on the ship. She assumed that it was Jim talking to Gillium and was about ready to roll over and go back to sleep when she realized that it was a woman's voice she was hearing, and it wasn't Suzuka or Melfina. Aisha stood up and sniffed as an unfamiliar scent wafted through the air. An intruder. Why didn't Gillium set off an alarm?
The Ctarl Ctarl stepped out of her room and cautiously made her way to the bridge. She could now hear the intruder, who was having a hushed conversation with Gillium.
"FOUR Unsen Engines?" the voice asked in quiet disbelief.
"That is correct......"
"Fantastic. Just out of curiosity, who the hell painted you pink?"
"I would prefer not to discuss it at this moment." the computer said.
The scent wasn't familiar to Aisha, but she was sure she recognized the voice from somewhere. Naturally, she had questions, but she felt they could be answered in good time courtesy of "Ctarl Ctarl persuasion". The cat-girl crept closer, unnoticed by their late-night guest. Aisha saw that the dark-haired intruder was busying herself by looking over the controls and decided to make her move.
The intruder stood up from the control panel as she caught a glimpse of something behind her reflected in one of the bridge's windows. Letting out a growl as she leapt, Aisha was hoping to knock her down and pin her to the ground, but the woman had just enough time to anticipate the Ctarl Ctarl's attack. Although not nearly as strong as Aisha, the woman was taller than the cat-girl and stronger than she looked. Sensing that she couldn't knock her down right away, Aisha grabbed the woman by her shoulders, spun her around and slammed her into the bulkhead behind the bridge. The dark haired woman countered with a quickness that would've made any Ctarl Ctarl warrior jealous as she pulled out a large-caliber pistol, pulled back the hammer and planted the barrel firmly in Aisha's right ear. Her finger tensed on the trigger as Aisha glared at her. She was trying to think of where she saw the face before as the intruder spoke up.
"Ctarl Ctarls and me just DO NOT get along.....give me one good reason why I shouldn't splatter your brains all over the floor, Miss Kitty."
Aisha continued glaring at her. This Terran didn't seem too eager to pull the trigger, but she didn't seem all that reluctant, either. Aisha bared her fangs and grinned as the intruder felt something long, sharp and slender press into her windpipe from behind.
"I can think of at least one....." Suzuka spoke up, applying just enough pressure to the bokuto without drawing any blood. Taking the assassin's hint, the woman pulled the pistol away from Aisha's head and relaxed her grip on it. "Now why don't you deposit your firearm on the floor before somebody gets hurt...." the assassin suggested.
".....namely yourself." Aisha growled as she ripped the gun out of the woman's hand and threw it on the floor. It clattered across the floor of the bridge, well out of their reach. Aisha slammed the woman hard into the bulkhead again, firmly placing one hand around her neck. She didn't want to wait for their unwelcome guest to try and pull any more surprises. It was time for a little Q&A session, but the woman had a very defiant gleam in her eye that made it clear answers weren't forthcoming. That didn't mean they weren't going to try.
"WHO ARE YOU?" Aisha yelled.
"I should be asking you the same thing. What are you doing on this ship?" the woman replied.
"We happen to be the crew." Suzuka calmly answered.
"What the hell kind of question in that?!" Aisha sneered
"You mean to tell me that you're this vessel's full compliment?" the woman asked.
Neither one of them felt like answering the others questions. It looked like a stalemate until a small, sleepy figure clutching a freshly brewed cup of coffee and clad in cargo pant and a grey jacket walked onto the bridge. He had been up examining this year's revised route for the Space race when he heard the commotion.
"What's going on?" Jim wearily asked Aisha and Suzuka. His jaw dropped and his face turned pale when he got a good look at the intruder. The intruder's facial expression changed upon seeing him, as though she recognized the boy-genius from somewhere. Jim could only back away in disbelief.
"Hello Jim...." the woman said coyly. The ceramic cup of coffee fell and shattered against the floor as Jim took two steps back. In the back of his mind, he realized that he had spilled some hot coffee on his foot, which burned a little. So that somehow meant that this wasn't a dream. Aisha's expression changed from fury to concern as she turned around and looked at Jim. The poor kid looked like he had seen a ghost.
"H-h-h-h-Hilda......?" Jim finally managed to stammer